Labor Day Labor of Love – The Christmas Catastrophe

The events of recent days have made me realize that my blog, subtitled “Intentional living in the theatre and beyond” is endowed with actual fate-bending powers. I know that sounds ridiculous, but listen to the next installment of the elusive couch. First, I just have to say that it boggles my mind that in 2014, in the United States, and in Los Angeles, that one would not be able to acquire a simple sectional sofa in four month’s time. Right? Crazy!

As promised by Jason, the kindly Crate and Barrel salesman,  I received the call on Wednesday, December 18th to schedule delivery of my couch. I was meeting with one of my stage management students when the phone rang. I had been waiting for the call about the delivery of the sofa, so when I saw the unfamiliar San Pedro number come up on my cell, I snatched it from the top of my paper-encrusted desk and excused myself to my student.

“Hello,” came the cheery voice. “This is name-inaudible-due-to-my-excitement from Crate and Barrel to let you know the delivery window for your couch.” I was so excited that all I heard was “Crate and Barrel.” “Your couch,” she crooned, “will arrive on Friday afternoon between 1:30 and 3:30PM. Are you still able to take delivery then? They are loading the truck and want to make sure you can still accept the delivery at that time.”

“Yes, of course,” I replied happiness burbling in my chest cavity. “Thank you so much!” I hung up the phone and resumed the meeting with my student. After he left, I called home and gave my husband the good news.

All was happiness and light.

Cut to Thursday afternoon. The phone rang again, another unfamiliar number. A little more warily, I picked up the phone only to hear a young woman say, “Hello, this is Diongo from Crate and Barrel.” Uh oh. This cannot be good.

“I’m sorry to inform you that only one portion of your couch made it onto the truck from our Northern California facility, so tomorrow, you will only be receiving the chaise portion of your sofa order. The earliest date that the missing sofa piece can be delivered is December 27th. I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience.”

I was stupified. I have to say that generally because of what I do for a living – production manage multiple shows a year, I usually receive difficult news with a pretty accepting demeanor. However, consider what I was up against on this couch set back:

1) We had ordered the couch on Sept. 1. Granted this is another vendor, but now I’m being told I won’t have the couch til Dec. 27th.

2) I am about to have 9 uninterrupted days off from work. All I want in the world is to sit down and put my feet up next to my husband.

3) My 83-year-old father is on his way from DC with his wife to spend Christmas with us. We now have 3 people over 80 years old and only two marginally comfortable chairs.

4) I have given my old couch away. That night, my colleague Hannah and her husband Patrick and two kids were coming over for dinner and to take the old couch away. Sort of like a barn-raising but in reverse. I cannot change the plan as this is the second time I’ve arranged the dinner and couch take-away plan. I do not want to disappoint them.

“I’m sorry, can you please repeat your name to me?”

“Djongo.”

“Diongo, this is completely unacceptable. I have no couch and I have family coming for Christmas. How could this have happened? Can you arrange for a loaner sofa until mine arrives? I really do not have anything for my family to sit on.”

“Let me see what I can do. It will take me a little while to figure out something, so please bear with me.”

By now, I am babbling to her about how I have been through this terrible ordeal with another company who didn’t provide the couch and we had to cancel, blah blah blah, all the while thinking – she doesn’t care. Stop talking. She is now repeating that the earliest date she can deliver the other half of the sofa is December 27th, which is the day my father and his wife leave.

That’s when it hits me – my blog has supernatural powers. It has awakened in the cosmos a certain schadenfreude about the happy improvement plan I have undertaken in my living room. “No, she can’t get her sofa before Christmas! That would be too easy! Let’s see just how much we can challenge her and see what she’s made of.”

After hanging up with Djongo, I finished work and took the bus home. Bursting through the door of the apartment, I barely spoke to my husband, but strode to the side table, where I pulled out the Crate and Barrel folder with the receipt for the sofa. Name of salesperson…… Ah, Jason. That’s what I needed. I snatched up the phone and dialed the number for the store, so I could give Jason a piece of my mind. Jason, who had promised that we would get our sofa by Christmas. Jason, to whom I had explained the whole painful West Elm story, whom I had befriended with my misery, who had calmly, confidently  and professionally sold us the sofa that would be in our home before Christmas. Jason, who was about to hear from me…The phone rang once, then twice, then:
“Hello, Crate and Barrel, this is Diongo speaking. How can I help you?”

All the petulant impetus for my call was instantly deflated. I have to tell you, if I were a furniture store manager, I would hire Diongo to be my customer service rep in a heartbeat.  She has a reasonable, pleasant demeanor. She thinks well on her feet. When I asked to speak with Jason, she said, “May I tell him who’s calling?” Sheepishly, I said my name and reminded her that we had spoken earlier. I told her “I wanted to speak with Jason because he promised me we would have our sofa and we won’t now have it before Christmas.” Patiently, she repeated what she said she was working on – finding a loaner or close out sofa we could use until our real one arrived on the 27th. “I’m happy to put you through to Jason if you’d like, but after the transaction leaves the seller, it’s really all about the delivery department and the seller doesn’t know what’s happening. At this point, I will be working to reach a solution on this.  Beat of silence as I flagellated my inner mean girl for wanting to let Jason have it. “No, I guess you will be the one who can help us straighten this out, so I don’t need to talk with Jason after all. Thanks, Diongo.”

She continued. “I will call you back later to let you know how my search is going.”

And she did. The manager had not approved the loaner, but she was looking for the actual item to get it scheduled before the 25th. I have faith in Diongo.

In the meantime, the chaise arrived today. I am writing this while sitting on it. It is paired awkwardly with one of the small veronica taper leg chairs from West Elm. It faces the TV. My husband took the maiden nap on it this afternoon.  And I just got off the phone with Diongo, who has arranged for delivery of an armless loveseat from the store in a complimentary color to our new chaise so that we all have a place to sit for Christmas.

I hesitate to tell my fate-bending blog of my intentions lest she throw another wrench into the works. But I think it’s going to be all right.

The Jewelry Box

I have on my dresser a battered green leather jewelry box. It is filled with some very old jewelry, as well as with the many beautiful gifts that my husband has given to me over the past thirty years.

The Jewelry box

If you were to see the box, you would ask yourself – Why has no one replaced this battered old thing? Originally a deep hunter green leather it sports an elaborate but delicate tooled gold border around the top and sides of the box. Once it was lockable; the keyhole well worn on the front of the box. Now it doesn’t even close, due to its largess of riches. Inside, there is a green silk lining and a wooden inset which fits perfectly inside and has a long horizontal ring tray and two square receptacles which hold a collection of jewelry. Two square velvet pillows crimped around the edges provide real estate for broaches to be pinned on them.

The most notable thing about its disrepair, however, is the top of the box, which sports two, continent-shaped holes in the green leather. These holes, revealing the buff colored cardboard under the leather, the left the shape of Australia, the right the shape of Africa, with a bite out of the horn. Around these continents in the remaining sea of green are a series of systematic scratches in the leather.

These scratches denote hours upon hours of adolescent phone calls from my parents’ bedroom in my childhood house in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. We had two telephones in our modest colonial house: one black rotary dial phone which rested on the hefty wooden desk in the corner of the den, and one princess phone on the bedside table of our parent’s upstairs bedroom. Here is where I would take my phone calls, bent at the waist, my elbows resting on my mother’s bureau, as I chatted idly with my girl friends, while digging industriously into the top of the leather jewelry box with an open safety pin taken from the dish on the top of the bureau.

Who can say why a normally responsible eleven or twelve-year-old girl would consciously destroy her mother’s jewelry box? As I recall, I was generally not very nice to my mother at that time – surly would describe my attitude in general, but I don’t think it was anger at my mother that drove me to tattoo the top of her jewelry box.

Things were getting rocky between my parents around then, and perhaps I went into their bedroom to take the calls because I thought I would find out why – frequently I would sneak into the room when I knew one of my brothers was on the phone with a girl; breathlessly, I would listen as they cooed at each other, titillated by the endless expressions of love between them and hungry to experience whatever that special bond between boys and girls was. I would giggle with my friends Lisa and Pixie on the phone and spend long moments discussing the perceived wrongs that one of us had experienced in school that day. There was something comforting about digging away at the box – probably if I were an adolescent today, I would be digging away at my own arm – but then, there was some satisfaction in knowing that my mother would later return to her jewelry box and experience irritation that someone had mauled its delicate lid. What is so strange now in retrospect is that she never mentioned it to any of us – of course she knew that it was one of the children doing it – why did she never inquire?

All I know is that now I have the same jewelry box on my dresser – it is one of my favorite possessions. It’s beauty is scarred, like the childhood memories of my parents’ marriage. Its delicate cargo from the generation of my mother and my grandmother – the garnet heart on the gold chain with garnets evenly spaced up the chain – from a watch fob belonging to her father, which she thoughtfully made into a necklace for me because the garnet was my birthstone; my high school ring nestling in the horizontal tray in the back, along with some very old engraved wedding rings belonging to my grandmother’s parents; the blue enameled butterfly pin from my father’s mother which I still wear on spring days when I am buoyed by the expectations of summer; the tarnished silver thistle pin worn on my tartan elementary school uniform; the pink pearl necklace and drop earrings given to me by my husband on our 15th anniversary in a Pasadena eatery. So many treasures not the least of which are the memories of those hours spent idly marring the top of the box.

Butterfly, Harbinger of Summer

Labor Day Labor of Love – The Heartbreak and the Healing

The coffee table arrived, as promised on the 4th of September, and that weekend, I began the process of putting it together. As in all assemblies, I carefully counted out the parts to make sure I had everything before beginning. I had had to wait to begin the assembly because the box was hugely heavy and I was unable to lift it. So I had waited until Chris was home to open it for me and slide the heavy parts out onto the floor.

It was an awkward but not impossible task to screw the first two legs onto the table, but when I began to attach the cross bracing, I realized that one of the legs was bent at a 45 degree angle and would not assemble with the 1/2″ screws provided by West Elm.

I picked up the phone and had the first of about 20 calls to customer service at West Elm. The very helpful customer service rep told me, “No problem, we’ll send out a new set of legs for the table.” “Great,” I thought, “I will get those in a few days and begin the table.

About four days later, an entirely new table arrived, but our son was no longer at home, so I was stuck hauling the box so that I could pull out the legs, and leaving the heaviest component in the box. Shipped that back to West Elm, and voila, we had a coffee table by Sept. 15th.

Cut to October 28th when we received the two large boxes which contained the new blue ikat patterned Veronica chairs with the tapered chocolate legs. Easy peasy to assemble. We were half way to our new living room. According to the next customer rep I spoke with, we would be called to select a delivery date for our new sectional sofa on November 13th.

No call came on the 13th. I called them late in the day on the 13th. The customer rep seemed confused and unable to pinpoint the day of delivery. She passed me on to someone else, who very reluctantly told me that there had been a delay in the fabric that would delay our couch 2-4 weeks. This rep told me that the fabric was due in one week and he would call me no later than the following Monday to report on the arrival of the fabric.

Monday came and no call from Jamal. I called him and asked what was going on. The fabric was on an even longer delay and now was due on December 20th. Unacceptable.

Meanwhile I had been in email communication with Rachael, the lovely sales person who had sold us all the items in the store in West Hollywood. She was sending me discount coupons, etc. and when I told her we were having trouble with the couch, she determined that the fabric we had selected had been discontinued and would not be available. We could select another fabric if we wanted to. By now it was the friday after Thanksgiving, and we could see that no matter what West Elm did we wouldn’t have our furniture assembled by the holidays.

Shortly after this email exchange with Rachael, I had a third conversation with Jamal at the Furniture 800 number. He was loathe to tell me that the fabric had been discontinued forever, so I told him. I also told him that I was extremely disappointed in the customer service West Elm had provided or not provided and that I was canceling the order for the sofa. I think Jamal was relieved that the saga was closed. I know I was.

The next night, Jimmie and I went out to Crate and Barrel and purchased a couch. It is due to be here by Dec. 20th. So simple. But there’s a little bit of sadness almost like losing a new friend.

So, I guess my new bestie isn’t West Elm – sorry Rachael. And now I can let this all go. All the anger and disappointment and outrage. So toxic and so not useful.

Happy holidays!

Classic Stage Manager Nightmare

So last night I was trapped in what felt like an 8 hour stage manager nightmare. I apologize for using real people’s names, but that was what made it so horrifying. These names are people whom I really respect and have worked with successfully in the past, so my epic professional collapse in the dream made me wake in a sweat. And like truly great nightmares, that are detailed and fascinating, I repeatedly went back to sleep hoping it would continue, which it did.

I had been hired by Dan Ionazzi, the Production Manager of the Geffen Playhouse and a renowned Lighting Designer in his own right,  to stage manage a large opera production in an outdoor arena called the “Alhambra.” I have never been to the Alhambra in Granada, but my cursory search this morning on Wikipedia led me to a castle on a hill.

This was not at all what the theatre I had been hired to stage manage in was like. This was some multi-chambered outdoor arenas  grouped in a cluster of adjacent canyons, each requiring sure footing to make your way through them. Once inside, the tech table was perched in the middle of the “theatre” on a naturally formed table shaped stone. I arrived at dusk and made my way to the table. There were many people running around in headsets and I chatted with them, and eventually walked down to the table when Dan said they were ready to begin. My tech table was completely clean of anything. No headsets, no book, no pencils, which was when I realized I had not brought anything with me. 

I said, “Do you think I could get a headset at the tech table, please?” And one of the many headset clad people came over and said, “This isn’t the tech table. The tech table is down here,” guiding me further down into the center of the canyon, where, sure enough, there was a headset and a large contraption that looked like a boom mic on a goose lamp contraption – sort of what you would see clamped to the side of a drafting table, but with a microphone on it, not a lamp. I sat at the table (still horrified that I didn’t see my script there) and the assistant gently guided what I realized was their version of the “God” mic over my head so that it captured everything I said and broadcast it, booming, out into the canyon for all to hear. They all heard something like this: “Where is my fucking script?”

Meanwhile, I looked around and there were large tourist groups being led into the canyon at regular intervals by nun guides. Yes, nun guides. And groups of children in uniforms. I know, I should be lying down on the therapist’s couch to recount this tale.

So, without a script, not much was going to happen. I explained (over the god mic which I didn’t know how to turn off) that I would need a script to begin the tech. This flummoxed everyone as you might imagine. So, in order to save face, I said I needed to return to my car to get my script. Next thing, I was walking around for the next 2 hours or so through the similar but creepy adjacent canyons. I was hopelessly lost and had no idea how to get back to the “theatre”.

They all looked remarkably similar, but were devoid of actors carrying spears and children in uniforms being led by nuns. I could not for the life of me, find my tech.

Suddenly I stumbled across a headset clad assistant, who had clearly been sent out to look for me and who led me back to the theatre, which was literally at least a mile away through a tortured route of knee straining steps.

Additional nightmare factors to this tech – I didn’t know the play.  I never made the tech happen. When I returned to the table lo those two hours later, some of my students from SC were sitting there teching the show quite satisfactorily without me. As I climbed back up to my table, I saw Paulie Jenkins sitting in the front row of the theatre removing her headset for the night. When I got to the table, there were three copies of the script on the table – no, unfortunately, in my dream I couldn’t read or remember the title of the play – and inside each script was a note from the following people – Bryan Gale – hope you feel better soon, Els, along with a cue list of the light cues. (There were a lot of LDs on this show apparently). One from Dan Ionazzi with equally supportive language. The message I woke up with was “this is your last show.”

Like I said, classic stage manager nightmare…..Glad to be awake this morning sharing the horror with you.

Labor Day Labor of Love – The Backstory

I’m not sure what motivated my husband and I to redo our living room furniture this fall. There was a pervasive sense of optimism when we returned from our summer vacation to the Cape, the start of classes behind me, auditions for the eight fall shows relatively finished, cast lists posted on the callboard in the Drama Center. First hurdle behind.

And the fact that we embarked on this journey on our anniversary, Sept. 1, after 29 years of marriage, was a delight. Off we went to the newly discovered West Elm store in West Hollywood, where we worked with friendly Rachael to select the perfect couch, the perfect side chairs, a coffee table. I was like the proverbial pig in shit.

I like to renovate and redecorate my homes. I’ve always enjoyed it. The most extensive example was the complete gut and redesign of our kitchen in our last home. The least extensive is probably this foray into replacing our inherited furniture. Perhaps I am my grandfather’s daughter. John Marcy Coon, Princeton, Class of 1931, architect and business owner, John constructed the bridges spanning the highways and turnpikes throughout Pennsylvania. He also designed the Nesbitt Hospital in Wilkes-Barre.

He designed and built his home in the suburbs of Wilkes-Barre, set amidst the fields and forests of Shavertown, a beautiful white brick home with an elegant L shaped layout which cradled the back porch  overlooking an “infinity” field, the border of which w dripped off the back side of the hill on which the house was located. My grandfather rented the field to a local farmer to plant and harvest. Every fourth of July we would gather on the edge of this field and shoot off the fireworks assembled for our delight by Uncle Lou, my Mom’s sister’s husband – Roman candles, sparklers punctuated the night which was already aglow from the hundreds of fireflies which we chased and jarred with abandon.

John Coon was among the earliest adaptors of solar power, including a solar panel system over the kitchen back door, which powered  all the hot water in the house. He designed a large brick incinerator in the heart of the kitchen, which warmed our backs when we gathered for breakfast at the table overlooking the circular driveway in the front of the house, and burned the trash generated in the home. It sounds like a grand home, which it was, but it was also a cozy home. There was an upstairs bedroom and bath over the garage just off the kitchen where we kids would stay when we came to visit on those innumerable Christmases and summer visits. This was strategically placed at the completely opposite end of the house from the master bedroom and guest bedroom, where our grandparents and parents slept. However, there was little danger of our waking Nana and Grandad, who gathered each morning in the kitchen for breakfast, and watched the Today show at a loud volume, which usually cued us up and out of our beds in the garret bedroom.

The back side of the L which was the living room, faced on the one side onto the large patio, and on the other side to a broad expanse of grass, and the fenced in pool area, where every day after work (in the summer months), John would put on his bathing suit, walk out the gently curved slate stepping stone path to the pool, ascend the low diving board, and dive into the pool, gliding beneath the water to the shallow end; when he emerged, dragging his hand through his majestic mane of hair as he smiled indulgently at his grandchildren cavorting around him in the pool.

A  book-lined den was the exit point for the pool pathway, and in the den were two of the chairs which I still have in my home and which were the impetus for this Labor Day’s labor of love. I have recovered both chairs since inheriting them from my mother; the last time in some orange or rust colored fabric which seemed like a good idea at the time, but which after 10 years or so, are disgusting. The high wing back chair, too big for our new downtown condo,  I donated it to the School for use on stage. It immediately made its way into the furniture cast of Lady Windermere’s Fan, and I discreetly waved to it when it appeared in the third act, Lord Darlington’s study. It always was an attention-grabbing chair. I’m so happy I could assist it in making its stage debut.

The other chair, a comfortable reading chair, originally upholstered in a nubbly navy silk (at Grandad’s house), had been the chair which was in Chris’ room when he was still young and willing enough to be read to before falling to sleep. Both Jimmie and I read the entire Harry Potter series from that chair, and spent hours sitting in it waiting for Chris to fall asleep. I have bonded with that chair and am not able/willing to let it go. It currently sits in our bedroom which is accepting of the orange fabric, but I have a bolt of upholstery fabric (selected after the West Elm chairs and sofa) waiting to grace it.

So, imagine our delight, when, after careful perusal of the West Elm site, we entered the store and lovingly selected the beige fabric for the new sectional. I should say the entire reason for this reno really was my attempt to return to the edenic chaise that we had gotten rid of shortly after moving into our new condo. There is nothing I like more than plunking down on a chaise with my feet up after a 14 hour day in the theatre. What could be better, right? The previous chaise was banished due to the ungodly feline stench that remained after years of owning cats, who, as they aged, increasingly lost their bladder control. Nuff said. The couch had to go.

In the mean time, back at West Elm, Rachael expertly guided us through the selection of the Dunham sectional sofa with Linen Weave “Natural” color, the Two Veronica Taper leg chairs with Retro Ikat pattern in Blue Lagoon, and Chocolate Legs, the Rustic storage coffee table. I was giddy from the spree, and practically skipped down the sidewalk to the car as we left the store. Rachael had explained that the furniture would arrive in stages – the coffee table almost immediately, followed in late October by the chairs and in early November by the couch, which has an 8-10 week lead time but which would be delivered with their “white glove” delivery service…

Time out for Tech

It is the season of the relentless techs. We are four shows into the parade of eight fall semester shows which means that we are teching every weekend. It is extremely different to be in tech as a production manager than it was as a stage manager. I am very peripheral to the process as the PM; I get to bring donuts and make people happy at the beginning of the 10 out of 12.

I also get to take the set designer down to the props storage to pull dressing for the set, and occasionally get to swing away from campus to pick up the errant prop (though these ventures are much less necessary since the arrival of “Speak-the-truth-Hannah,” who is so superb at her job as Props Manager.

Last weekend was Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa.” This weekend is a new play by EM Lewis called “Infinite Black Suitcase.” Next weekend we will spend supporting Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” What tech now allows me to do is to observe the directors. To take note of things with a directorial eye, and to write them down, and if I am feeling bold, to send them to the director to do with what he/she will. Some directors are grateful for my notes; some do not mention them at all, but I will notice one of them having been inserted into the production when I come back to see a performance. It strokes my ego.

Makes me feel useful. But the main thing I feel during the tech season is tired. Just want to lay down and sleep for 10 hours. But it isn’t possible. So I rise and shine and buy the donuts and sit and observe. Time out for tech.

My long suffering husband waits for me at home. Saturday I am exhausted.

Sunday, after tech and a strike of the previous show’s set, we go out for dinner – always to CPK. It is a tradition now, one that began about 8 years ago when I joined the school’s production department. Strike pizza. Some couples call it date night, but for us, it is just an hour stolen from tech time to catch up and remember our lives together. To hoot in support of our team on the TV over the counter in the CPK.

So I am off to bed to sleep for 6 hours or so before the hummingbirds get up and so do I.

The Hummingbird Chronicles, Part 3

August 27, 2013

Things in the hummingbird kingdom are puttering along. The birds now favor the left feeder to the point that they are emptying it within two days to the four it takes for the right feeder to be emptied. IMG_2552

The other day I saw an oversized hourglass filled with sand over at Surplus Sales. I made a remark to the guy at the counter that it must be disturbing to have such a reminder constantly of one’s mortality. Do you remember the Days of Our Lives top of show intro?days-of-our-lives

“As the sands through the hourglass, so run the days of our lives.” This reference went nowhere with the guy, and he looked at me like I was crazy. But once I got home that afternoon and saw that the hummingbird feeders were both empty, I realized that Jimmie and I now had our own little hourglass of sorts. And we are the proud caretakers to about a dozen hummingbirds. They are dependent on us to provide the sugar water and they are drinking it faster and faster each time we put it out. They are voracious little suckers.

Good news – Marcus and Suzy have moved in next door, so I guess if we are to go away for the weekend or something, we could ask them to come fill our feeders, and leave some liquid in the fridge for just that event.IMG_2554

The most active time of the day seems to be about 3:30PM. Jimmie takes his waterglass out and watches them girate and frolic. He loves to watch them as they assemble on the feeder’s tiny red rail – two at a time, then a third, then a fourth, all adjusting the way you instinctively do in an elevator as more people board the elevator – allowing as much space between you as is possible. But the hummingbirds can reach only about 5 before the delicate relationship crumbles. Along comes a high-strung bird who hovers just above their shoulders and then dives in, scattering all the birds to the winds.

They also seem to work in twos, Jimmie noted. One will hover over the shoulder so that the seated bird swivels his head around and then the second bird swoops in and sits down on the rail. The original bird is then startled into a fight with the hoverer and the second bird takes the rail and begins to drink.

There is something so soothing about coming home from a stressful day and sitting and watching the birds. Nothing to do about them, just to enjoy them. Now that my hours are longer and techs will keep me at work long after dark, I am greedy for the time in the morning with my tea and the newspaper and the birds.

Life is good.

Letters from Venice – Part V

Sept. 18, 1982

“Dear Diary” if this isn’t a flight to freedom via occupation – i.e., writing, I don’t know what is. There are these people next to me who are trying to get their baby to coo while Daddy is poised overhead with a camera like a doctor with a microscope over a specimen jar. Mommy is cooing in…yes, baby talk in French – an international bad habit. I wonder, will I coo at my babies? – God, I hope not. Well, here I am in Como, Lake Como, and northern Italy. I was just out on this jetty in the middle of the lake, and burst out laughing at my educational process – this week of solo traveling between Bob and Florence and Dad and Joan in Amsterdam. It all began in Milano, when I waved goodbye to Bob and Lee. Crying (as always these days), I climbed into the train and miraculously, a space opened up in a compartment full of very friendly Italians – (Ed. Note: All this is hence colored by today’s incidents.) While en route to Milan, we spent two of the three hours in discorso, using the Italian dictionario, the map, and all sorts of handy visual aids. They were very nice, counseled me against “bad men,” and with the exception of one of them, kept their hands off me. The one was relatively harmless; he kept offering me a ride to Como on his “macchina” at the station. In spite of his assurances that his wife was coming along, I intuited that it was not terribly safe. One of the men, named Franco, was very polite and sensitive to my discomfort when it occurred. At Milan, he helped me to call Louisa in Venice, and took me to see Il Duomo in Milano Centrale. Beautiful, with 100 carved figures on the outside alone. And hundreds of spires, also. It was great. Afterwards, he put me on the train and I left for Como.

Which was, and is beautiful. Lake ComoI arrived at 6:35 or so and proceeded to the Hostel, which was, yes, chiuso, (closed) since June. There, I met a German fellow with a car, and we ate dinner, and then searched for a place to stay. Ma tutto era completo (All hotels were full). And even in the towns on the north side of the lake, there was nothing. So we parked the car, and with Walter’s blanket, I slept on a beautiful bluff over looking the lake, and Walter (God, that name cracks me up) slept in the car.

LakeComoatNightI was reminded of our alpine location, about 12:30 when it began to become very cold. But god, it was glorious when the sun started to come up, and the roosters at various points around the lake began to crow. I awoke at 6:30AM for the last time, to find three hawks circling over my head – I sat bolt upright and gave them the visual clue that I was alive, even if at that point I did smell like dead meat! Came down to Como proper, saw Walter off to Austria, and sought out a bagno publico (public bath), which I found and used in luxury. On my way out, past the market, a vender gave me two apples, not prime by any means, but surely edible, all was looking up when I went to the Grande Piazza and sat down to soak in the sun. Then comes this “nice little old man,” who sits down next to me and starts talking. So we had a nice conversation – the guy was old enough to be my grandfather. Then he asked me if I was hungry, after we’d discussed how “Couragio” (courageous) I was etc. for the night before. And so I go to lunch and he guy wants wine – first tip. “No, I don’t drink,” says Els, catching on quickly. Well, lunch was fine, though I lost my appetite sometime after he asked me to have dinner ad before he told me it was better if I stayed overnight in his house –It wasn’t safe “solo.” Well, granted, it apparently isn’t safe solo, nor did I want to go near this guy’s house, even for caffe, or cognac or cinema, or anything. I just felt stupid to be part of this aging man’s heart attacks or wet dream –god I sound hard. I really guess it boils down to the fact that I felt stupid and selfish and naïve and guilty and entirely justified in leaving him after lunch. Quite a tasty little psychological soup, that!

So, I’m passing the day solo and trying to remain as inconspicuously so as possible I pity the man who comes near. Old Iron Fists Collins here. Tonight at 11:30PM I’m taking the train to Thionville – will sleep on the train. “Sleep”, a euphemism for remaining on guard. I’m sitting on the edge of the lake, which is no punishment or exile – God, It’s glorious.

Sept. 22, 1982

The evening after my imbroglio, I spent with a beautiful young Italian boy- I say boy, because he was about 18-19, and was refreshing in his playfulness. He approached me by offering me a smoke – of hashish, no less, which I politely refused – images of imprisonment lingered in my brain the entire time we were together, even after he buried his “drogues” in a hole nearby. It was really a lovely evening, spent talking about inanities, really, listening to his ghetto blaster and watching the night settle in. There are certain safeties of being with someone and also a comfort of human companionship, of course.

ThionvilleAt Thionville, after a long night on the train with no sleep (I slept on the floor in the passageway, kicked every five minutes or so) I found L’Auberge, and the propriertaire let me sleep all day long in spite of the fact that the hostel was closed. It was great. There, that night, I met Mikie and Tom, a Finnish woman and Canadian man traveling together and we went out for a beer (coke). It was especially refreshing to speak English in more than the most crude way.

The next day, I spent reading, walking around Thionville, Thionville2 and buying books (when it rained). First French books, and a dictionaire. The next day, the 21st, on to Bruxelles, Bruxellesand finding the hostel gutted and ferme (yes, you guessed, closed), I proceeded to Chab, where I met Jessie James, an American vet who was stranded in Brussels, waiting for his veteran’s pension. Pretty interesting guy – “Jessie James” isn’t far off the mark – has quite a few tricks up his twenty-seven-year-old sleeve. Told me about “doing an American Express” to “double your money.” I had to like him, though he was incredibly smooth to the point of being “glissant.” My roommates at the hostel were fascinating –Oorna, a young Israeli woman – I would have liked to travel with her. She reminded me a little of Jessica, tough, but with a true mirth that comes of having seen some things. She had served in the army two years and was proud of her country, but had problems with the evacuation from Beirut of the Palestinians. It is getting very rough in Europe now, with assassinations of Jews occurring in Paris, Amsterdam. It is not a good time to be Jewish and traveling here.

On to Amsterdam today to get my mail!

Lucky Chris – Part I

My husband and I were married in 1984. We were an unlikely couple- he, an actor in his late 50s, me a young college graduate in my early 20s, recently returned from a year squandered abroad in Venice, Italy, as the au pair for a graduate student in Art History, who was traveling with her six-year-old daughter. (See Letters from Venice- Parts 1-11)

Jimmie and I met at the McCarter Theatre, where I had been hired by my best college friend to work as a dresser for a new Hal Prince-directed show entitled Play Memory. Jimmie was in the cast, playing one in the rowdy group of friends to the lead, Donald Moffat, and our subsequent tour to Philadelphia created many opportunities to get to know each other at drinks after the performances, and as runners in a small group that included a few of the other actors.

But this story isn’t the main story, just a preamble to our subsequent adoption of our son, Chris, who is this story’s headliner.

I feel like I am breaking a long tradition of writing only positive things about one’s children. I also want to say that I am gorgeously and permanently in love with our son Chris, as is his doting father. You see, from a very early time, it has been clear that our son was different from other children. He always took the hard path. He was impetuous, and risk-taking, had an aversion to the usual way of doing things, and an incredible ability to come out of situations smelling like a rose.

I guess you could say he has amazing karma.

We knew it from the moment we set eyes on him, when we visited the foster home where he was staying as a 2 year old. We arrived at the house in Santa Clarita, forty minutes north of our home in North Hollywood. (We had moved there due to the fact that Jimmie had booked a TV show while he was playing in The Iceman Cometh at the Huntington Hartford Theatre). We had been married at this time for seven years, and in spite of our very best efforts, had been unable to have a child.

We had an incredible life and love and the potent desire to share it with a child. I had begun a series of tests to determine why I wasn’t conceiving, and the first was so painful that I was pretty sure I didn’t want to continue down the artificial insemination trail. We had discussed adoption but as yet, had not begun exploring the best way. We knew we couldn’t afford to hire an adoption lawyer, and were skeptical of knowing the birth mother and sharing an open adoption.

One day we were at the North Hollywood park with our German shepherd, Jasper, when we came across a fair, with tables and exhibits. We approached the table marked “adoption.” This was not a table for adopting dogs, but one with information about adopting children through the Department of Children’s Services. It was pretty simple to sign up for an orientation for prospective adoptive parents, which we did. Several weeks later, we sat in a nondescript conference room in a decrepit office tower in Van Nuys at a table with four other prospective parents, listening to a bleak prognosis about how long and grueling the process could be.

“It can take up to three years for you to be assigned a case worker,” the woman intoned. “Then there is the distinct possibility that it can take up to five years for a child to be placed with you. You will need to undergo a lengthy and invasive home study process, and you will need to become certified in CPR and first Aid.”

Honestly, I can’t remember a single positive thing this woman had to say about the process and yet we were so intent on having a child that we accepted the application and filled it out that night and mailed it in.

About two months went by. We were both busy, Jimmie with his TV series, and me with my new work as a PA at Center Theatre Group. We were sharing a car, and I would drive Jimmie to the studio in a warehouse in North Hollywood, and then go on to my work.

We got a call from the DOCS saying that we had been assigned a case worker, whose name was Amy Wong Martinez, and the first hurdle of the process had proven uncharacteristically short and simple. We met with Amy in the office at Wilshire and Vermont, and came away encouraged and excited. We had assignments, to attend the CPR and first Aid training at the Red Cross, and yet another form to fill out.

We signed up for the CPR/First Aid training, and a week or so later, we were kneeling over the rubber training dummies at the Red Cross, learning how to give the baby Heimlich maneuver to an infant.

http://www.wikihow.com/Perform-the-Heimlich-Maneuver-on-a-Baby

At home, we were filling out the most difficult questionnaire of our lives.

It began easily enough- preferred gender- male or female? This was easy. We really didn’t have a preference.

Race? Again, easy. We had decided that we were enthusiastic and able to parent a child of any race.

Age of child? We thought we could handle anyone from newborn to about two years. How blithely and blindly we filled out this questionnaire.

Acceptable disabilities? This is where the rubber met the road. I found myself face to face with some pretty insurmountable assumptions. Visually impaired? I was okay with a child who needed glasses, but unable to parent a child who was blind in either one eye or both eyes.

Audibly impaired? I was accepting of some hearing loss but not complete deafness.

Lost limbs? How limited I felt. I needed our child to be whole of body.

Learning differences? What were learning differences? I didn’t have a clue. There were things like dislexia that seemed possible to cope with, and mental retardation, which did not. It was sobering, humbling, and so fundamental to confront these limitations in myself, but critical to be honest about what they were. And how fortunate we were to be able to be selective about these things, unlike the birth parents of most children, where it’s really a crap shoot.

We finished the form and sent it back to Amy.

I will never forget the date, October 3rd, 1991. The phone rang, and I heard Amy’s cheery voice say, ” there is someone we think you and Jimmie might be interested in. He is two and two months old, and is currently in a foster home for medically fragile children due to prenatal drug exposure. I drew in a sharp breath, as this could have profound impact on his learning.  She was quick to say that per the DOCS protocol, we would need to accept him as a foster child  sight unseen, because they didn’t have prospective parents meet children and then say no. The process was built to protect the child, and we had understood this when we initially signed up. Accepting this child into our fost/adopt home didn’t mean we had to adopt him- we could just foster him, but I knew that as soon as he came to us we would adopt him.  Just as I had known when Jimmie asked me to move in with him, that it was tantamount to my accepting a marriage proposal. That’s just how I am made, and how I sensed, correctly, that Jimmie was made.

Jimmie wasn’t home at this point. He was at work. I was stage managing a play at LATC with the extremely gifted Iranian director, Reza Abdoh, but hadn’t yet gone to work that day. I asked Amy to continue with the explanation of this child so I could tell Jimmie and get back to her. She went on. “He is adorable- he has curly dark hair and a lovely smile. He lives in a home in Santa Clarita. He has had some feeding issues- he eats quite a bit and gets very upset when he can’t get the food. He had been in two homes since birth- the first a home in Kern County, further north- he was there until he was about 8 months old, and then moved to this home in Santa Clarita. The parents there have another girl who is severely delayed and doesn’t speak. Chris, the two-year-old, has begun using sign language to ask for his bottle, and we would like to get him placed outside of this home so that he can develop more language skills.”

His mother was using cocaine and maybe other drugs at the time she was arrested, and was in Sybil Brand jail at the time of his birth.”

And that was about all we had to go on. I hung up with Amy, and dialed Jimmie’s dressing room at Molly Dodd. We were elated, and happily agreed to move forward with meeting Chris.

When Jimmie returned to the house that night, we celebrated that we would be meeting Chris in a few days. The arrangement was that we would meet him first at Donna and Jim’s house in Santa Clarita, and then would spend a half hour or so with him there. Our next “date” would be a short afternoon trip with Chris where we decided to take him to a nearby park with a petting zoo and then back home. Finally, if all was going well, we would take him home with us for an overnight trip to see how that went.

The day of our first meeting with Chris, sometime in the early part of October of 1991, we drove up to Santa Clarita with much excitement. It seemed so far away which was ironic, because later Chris played hockey with a team for four years that was based in Valencia, near Santa Clarita. But this day, Jimmie drove and I navigated with the instructions Amy had given us and we pulled up to the house a few minutes early and sat together in the car.

At the appointed hour, we got out of the car and approached the front door, where we were greeted by Donna and Jim. Jim was holding Chris in his arms, and he was adorable. He had laughing eyes, and a full head of dark curls; he was soon down on the ground as we sat together in the front living room and met Donna and Jim’s child and their pet basset hound.

Chris was alternatively shy and raucous, bouncing from Jim to Donna, and eventually to us. He was mostly unguarded and naturally affectionate. He eventually let us hold him and carry him outside to show us his playground area in the back yard. He showed us how he liked to swing, and run around the yard. Meanwhile Donna caught us up about his health and favorite things. She prepared a bottle for him and we watched as he sucked on it greedily. He had very few words: ball, jeep ( for all cars), dog, fuck (for all trucks), dad (for Jim, of course).  I think in the first weeks, I counted 11 words in his vocabulary.

We left their house after about an hour and were completely enthralled with Chris. We made plans for our picnic date later that week.

I think it was in the same time that we had our home study, which consisted of a visit to the house, an appraisal of our animal population, which at that time was 2 cats and a dog, and a physical assessment of doors, electrical, heating and cooling, and child proofing, which I had just begun to do.

A few days later, armed with a new car seat for Chris, we drove back up to Santa Clarita and picked him up for the day visit. We felt so nervous after buckling him into his car seat, and driving to the park, armed with the directions from Donna and Jim. When we arrived at the park, we sat briefly on the ground to eat our picnic, then kicked the blue plastic ball around the yard that we had brought along with us.

Again, it was magical. Chris loved the feeding of the goats at the petting zoo there in the little park. We were bonding well, and were excited to have our sleepover date.

But first, we needed to transform the guest bedroom, which had a full size bed in it and had housed my Mom or Dad for visits. It had sliding doors outside, and pretty unappealing carpet.

We went to Ikea and bought some carpet tiles,  which we installed, and then began to put the single bed together. It was a transitional bed, with slats on the one side, and our adoption worker, Amy, was there to help us put it together. Instant parenthood in the span of less than a month. I felt extreme jealousy about the people who have 9 months to prepare for their new arrival.

Chris’ first visit to our house went very well. He loved our two cats and dog, and proceeded to chase them around the house.  We had a big back yard for him to play in, and he enjoyed the experience, as did we. One of the first pictures we have of Chris is sitting on the bench in our back yard, being held by Jimmie and he held a large stick-shaped piece of styrofoam in his hand. He looked like he was being restrained from chasing a cat with it, but he and Jimmie both beamed in the picture.

Our one night stay over went very well, and Chris slept in his new bed, staying there until we came to get him out in the morning. (This was very impressive to me at the time, and now, knowing Chris, even more so).

Things moved ahead rapidly and it was determined that Chris would change households and live with us full time until his adoption was finalized, a process that could take up to 2-3 years depending on whether the birth parents freed him for adoption.

Here’s a story to reveal  j ust how unprepared for parenthood I was. I was or had just finished stage managing the play Bogeyman, at LATC, and so I would have my evenings free. Halloween was around the bend, and we had a very active Halloween scene on our street in North Hollywood, necessitating purchases of candy by the gross for our little visitors who were frequently brought to the neighborhood in large groups by van. There was a steady stream of little gobblins and princesses, and the accompanying cacaphony of doggy greetings by Jasper. it was a little overwhelming even for us.

Also, at the time, there was a new Jean Claude Christo exhibit of the Yellow Umbrellas which was installed in the brown corduroy hills of Gorman, just north beyond Santa Clarita on the Interstate 5.  Image

I had a long love of Christo’s work, going back to my college days where I and my cronies had “wrapped” Blair Arch, a large walkway and ogival dorm with a tower and Arch over a staircase leading down to the bookstore at Princeton. We sewed together 8 large queen bed sheets, after first dying them orange, and then recruited some of the rugby jocks who live in the Blair arch tower to hang the assemblage out their windows and secured it with rope to the windows. It was our homage to Christo, and our team of artistic renegades sat on the grass and watched people come through the arch and remark on it as it billowed across the span.

I think we had left on corner uncovered to allow passage. It was our homage to his canyon in Arizona, that he had wrapped with orange nylon. Image We finally had to remove it after some hooligans took a lighter to it and threatened to burn it down. Another of our artistic happenings was to wrap all the sculptures all over the campus with Saran Wrap, burlap and twine. This would have been disruptive enough, but we did it the night before the all campus sculpture run which was led by one of the faculty members from the fine arts department  and which was very much ruined by our shenanigans.

At any rate, knowing that Chris would be coming to stay with us permanently  on October 30th, I thought it would be brilliant, witty, clever, and appropriate for his Halloween costume to be a Christo umbrella, so I looked until I found pjs that were Winnie the Pooh themed, yellow onesies with feet, and found a little child sized yellow umbrella. My idea as that we would greet the Halloween guests with the umbrella up and hand out candy that way, much to the delight of all the trick or treaters and Chris.

Well, you might imagine how that went. Halloween came and on his second day in the new neighborhood with a new family, we opened the front door to a steady parade of people with scary masks at the door. Great plan, new Mom!

In later years, Chris embraced Halloween as a pirate, and many other colorful characters, but it was a bit much for that second night in his new home.

Letters from Venice – Part IV

Sept. 7, 1982

I am on a train from Edinburgh to London, the beginning of our sojourn to Florence! I really got the travel itch this morning at the train station. Finished off Edinburgh with a bang. After spending all of Sunday in  bed, watching Casablanca, reading Thomas Mann, and eating McVitties digestive biscuits, Monday, my last full day in Edinburgh, I spent at the British Watercolor Exhibition, which was exquisite, and last night went to see La Piccola Scala from Milan perform “La Pietra Del Paragone.” Terrible opera production, but I am perhaps spoiled by the Met’s spectacular shows!
We left the Turkey at the Rat Café, on the door handle – no note. I would love to see their faces when they find it! Great people at the Rat.

(The turkey was a paper mache prop turkey that Bob and I had painstakingly created on the kitchen table back at Princeton, in Edwards Hall, to solve Sam Shepard’s problem of serving a turkey on stage each performance. We filled the cavity of the turkey with sliced turkey breast, on the upstage side and came to love the turkey.)

The countryside is overwhelmingly beautiful. images-5 Such sharp contrasts of wheat and cabbage, evergreens and sheep, old farmhouses and old walls and the insidious new industries, which necessarily bilge blackness into the already overcast sky.

[torture….]

Why is it that writing kills the impulse to write? Observe and learn.

Sept. 9, 1982

Paris! After a very long night au bord du bateau, Channelcrossingwe have finally reached Paris! London was fine – we saw all the sights, Big Ben,images-Big Benjpg

Westminster Abbey,images-Westmin

which was totally impressive, but I feel all a-tingle just being here. We reached St. Lazareimages-Gare St. Lazareimages-GareSt.Lazareextthis morning at 7:00AM, called Hubert, Bob’s French Ami, and are at his apartment now. I am about to take a most welcome shower. Things are going our way also, the exchange rate is at a record high 7.04 F/$. So we are wealthy. Good news. Excuse me. To the shower!

AAAhhh!

There is something more of a challenge being here that stimulates my sporting impulse much more than English speaking Scotland did. An air of the exotic, even the pharmacists devient plus exotiques!  I can understand most of what Hubert says but am a little reticent to speak. That I am losing fast, however. Off to see the city.

Sept. 11, 1982

Three of the best days since leaving Princeton. Hubert has been a prince, giving us the run of his apartment, and of Paris. The first night we went out to a very nice gay restaurant with Ludovic, one of Hubert’s friends. It was very pleasant. Last night we had dinner at home – Hubert is quite a chef in his own right. Bob and I spent the day going to the Tour Eiffel, the American Church, CiDJ, to find information about jobs and housing for when I/we come back after traveling with Dad and Joan.images-undereiffel

Sitting on the banks of the Seine,images-Seine it is easy to think why Paris has seen so many fantastic artists in her history. At the Beauborg images-Beauborgthis morning (right next to Hubert’s apartment) – saw an exhibition of both Braque’s and Yves Tanguey’s works. They were both very different. Tanguey most closely resembles Dali, with his very heady symbols. I find him not to be terribly accessible, in spite of what he and his comrades chose to call automatic drawings. They seem after a time to have become automatically like their counterparts.

Also saw David Hockney’s photos in an exhibit. He does really cool things with composite images.

Sept. 13, 1982  FIRENZEimages-DuomoFirenze

We arrived yesterday at 1:00PM and ran like beheaded chickens trying to find Lee, Bob’s brother. Losing that battle, we went to the Piazza by the Palazzo Uffizi and Loggia, where we met this great old Florentine gentleman who assured us that Florence was bella, and antica. It was his favorite phrase, and every city that came up in conversation could not rival Florence and Rome. Arriving in Italy actually transpired on the train, where our compartment was peopled by two old people from Napoli and a younger man (40’s) who spoke a little English. Not enough. Because he told us we were 2-3 hours from Pisa. This meant we had time to go to the bar car, which was entirely at the end of thee train. Settling down there to eat our biscotti e bibeti, we pulled into a station which we were horrified to learn was Pisa. We jumped off the train, ran outside alongside and back on to get our packs, while our “guide” said “Pisa, Pisa!”  Thanks, buddy.

The other amusing incident on the train occurred when the Napolites started to breakfast after they awoke. From their huge bag emerged two meatball sandwiches and hot coffee from a thermos. (Bob and I, transfixed, continued to pop pruneaux and almonds into our mouths) and two very going sounding pastries, which they managed to make into the loudest breakfast, I have ever heard. It was all I could do to keep from laughing which would not have been the thing to do.

Last night we decided to splurge and go to a nice Italian restaurant. Lee very kindly sprang with his Visa card, and we found a table-clothed ristorante, and had an incredible spread, beginning with an antipasto of crab, mussels, calamari, etc. and prima pasta of Taglierani con panne e salmone, which was exquisite.

Next boiled salmon and an insalata verde. With wine and acqua minerale. It was great. At the table next to us, while we were wallowing in our shared dishes (probably about normal for two people), a table of five, very tanned and colorfully dressed Italians proceeded to put away the most amazing amount of food I’ve ever seen.

Contrary to this journal entry, there are other things to do in Florence than to eat and watch others do so.

This afternoon, we went to the Boboli Gardens at the Pitti Palace, which were every bit as grand as I had hoped –long avenues of trees lined up to guide you or your eyes to an oasis of a pond, with clay potted orange trees and incredible statuary all over the place. The pergolas make beautiful naturally leaded ceilings over the pathways and it would have been a lovely place to write in.

Later, Bob and I went to Il Duomo, and climbed to the top, sandwiched between the two domes, and the German tourists. It is 460 steps to the top, worth every one on seeing the incredible view from the top. I took two pictures from the top – quite a splurge for my very discerning shutter finger*.images-fromtopofduomo

*Bob and I have designed a first class “camera-first” tour of Europe. Pose in front of every monument you see and take a close-up shot to include only 1 sq. meter of the monument’s wall behind. Ex: Perched atop of Il Duomo, don’t take the obvious photo with the city of Florence at your back, turn around and pin your subject to the Duomo itself. This way you can avoid those difficult landscape shots and record instead only the moment of bliss or horror registered on your subject’s face. And why trudge from monument to moment – you can take all those photos in your pensione room – just choose the most rustic wall, ie. the one having lost the most plaster, and shoot away.

–Your resident tourist and cynic in Florence.

We are staying in a great pensione off the Piazza della Indepencia. It is a huge room and the floors out in the hall are Mosaic tiles. Everything is really beautifully done.

Sept. 17, 1982

It was very hard to leave Bob and Lee in the station in Florence, but also is very exciting to go on alone. It is an extremely different experience to be sure – people are more likely to speak with you when you are alone and that makes traveling very much more pleasant.

It will be very relaxing to get into the mountains for a few days. I can tell already as we had into the mountains that they will be fantastic.

On our last day in Florence, we went to S. Gimignano, a Fourteenth century city atop the hills north of Florence. Though about as full of fellow tourists as Florence, it was still very different. When we arrived, the piazza was full of the market, but by the middle of the afternoon, it had cleared out sufficiently to be able to see the extant town.

We bought our lunch “stuffs” and climbed up into the Parco Publico by La Rocca to eat in the olive orchards overlooking the countryside. All was fine until poor Lee became plagued by his traveling friend, Montezuma (wrong country, right idea), so Bob and I spent the afternoon somewhat languorously amidst the dappled shade and sun of another secluded orchard while Lee visited with his friend. We were secluded all but for the young German hikers who were reading rather loudly from their tour book in Italian.